Christianity 201

March 15, 2012

Philip Yancey on Pain and Suffering

I really wish Philip Yancey blogged more often. His reflections are always fresh, insightful and pastoral. But between books, the blog and articles in Christian periodicals he does provide us with a large body of literature sharing his unique perspective.  Instead of reading what follows, I hope you’ll link to the fuller context and even explore more of the blog. Yancey is, without doubt, my favorite Christian author.

This is taken from two posts. The first section is from a fairly recent blog post, Following a Trail of Tears

On March 5 Janet and I leave for Japan, where I will speak at several events commemorating the earthquake and tsunami.  We’ve all seen videos that seem taken from a special-effects horror movie: of ships, houses, and trucks tossed down the streets like toys, of a modern airport suddenly submerged under water, of a nuclear reactor tower exploding in a thick black cloud.

While preparing for this trip I’ve been reminded again of the magnitude of the 2011 disaster in which 20,000 people died.  The wall of water reached a maximum height of 132 feet—as tall as a twelve-story building!—destroying 270,000 buildings in its path and forcing hundreds of thousands of people into temporary housing.  A year later, many still live in those temporary structures, and it will cost at least $200 billion to replace the damaged buildings.  When I think of the enormous effort involved in addressing the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, I can hardly fathom the challenges facing Japan…

…I have spoken in some tough places, such as Virginia Tech after the shootings and Mumbai the night after the terrorist attacks.  Never have I faced a tragedy so massive in scale.  I’ve learned, though, that for the people involved, scale doesn’t matter so much.  Pain zooms in very personally: a child swept away from a kindergarten playground, pets and livestock abandoned as their owners had to flee, a family business destroyed in an instant, a teenager terrified by the aftershocks that hit weekly, everyone frightened by the invisible threat of radiation.  For a theme my hosts chose the title of my last book, What Good Is God?—an appropriate question for people who have endured such an event…

And then he shares this:

The Apostle Paul gave us a clear formula for how we should respond to those in suffering and need:

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.  For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.” 

May we channel that comfort to the people of Japan, whose suffering has not ended.

The theme is quite similar at the end of a description of a tour that he did in Australia and New Zealand in September, titled Notes from the Great Southland:

…One of the sketches performed by the actors comes from the play Shadowlands.  “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world,” proclaims the confident professor C. S. Lewis from a lectern.  Yet later in the sketch, as he comes to terms with Joy Davidman’s imminent death, and then tries to comfort her son Douglas, his confidence has melted into confusion and doubt.  The book he wrote about Joy’s illness and death, A Grief Observed, has a very different tone than his earlier treatise The Problem of Pain.

Rather than megaphone, I prefer the image of pain as a hearing aid: while the Bible generally ignores the messy question of causation, it encourages us to “tune in” to the redemptive power of suffering.  Some respond by switching off the hearing aid and turning away from God.  Others follow the Apostle Paul’s example in allowing God to wrest goodness and growth from the bad things of this world.  Even wintry times offer reasons for hope.  We saw this most clearly at the site of our last event, held in New Zealand’s second largest city, Christchurch, site of a devastating earthquake last February…

…Often after a natural disaster, communities look to churches for help.  For example, six years after Hurricane Katrina, long after the federal government has moved on, churches in Houston and Dallas still send weekend teams to repair and rebuild houses in New Orleans.  In New Zealand, denominations banded together, assigned response teams to the neediest areas, and organized a food bank and tool bank.  More than 700 aftershocks have hit the area, creating an oppressive mood of fear and anxiety.  In a city whose very name expresses their identity, the churches hope to convey

“the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3).

As I told the group gathered in Christchurch, on the surface winter looks like death.  Trees once resplendent with leaves now appear as dead sticks.  Yet botanists tell us that most plant growth occurs during winter, below the surface, as roots spread out and absorb the moisture and nutrients they will need for the vitality of spring and summer.  May it be so, not just in Christchurch, New Zealand, but all across that nation and its larger cousin Australia, once known as “the great Southland of the Holy Spirit.”

…to which I would add, ‘and in Canada, the United States, the UK and everywhere else!’

If you’ve never read any of Philip’s books, may I recommend The Jesus I Never Knew and What’s So Amazing About Grace as two good titles to begin with.

If you particularly resonate with Philip’s response to his world travels (as described above) you might enjoy the new title What Good is God? The title is rather provocative, and each of the 20 chapters consists of a description of the details which brought him to a particular place and time, paired with the transcript of the address he gave to that particular group of people, for a total of ten different locations and events.